How To Prevent Shoplifters From Stealing
Theft and thieves have been around for a very long time.
The biblical ten commandments—including “thou shalt not steal”—were likely written about 3400 years ago.
And shoplifter? The word “lift” as a slang term for “steal something from a shop” goes back at least 400 years, while the word “shoplifter” itself first appeared in 1671.
Shoplifting—”the Crime of stealing Goods privately out of Shops and Warehouses, commonly called Shop-lifting”—was officially recognized as a crime in Great Britain in 1698.
Suffice it to say, shoplifters and shoplifting have been an issue for centuries, a trend that continues to this day. Consider:
- Roughly one out of every eleven Americans is a shoplifter
- 75% of shoplifters didn’t plan on stealing anything ahead of time
- Shoplifters are caught only once out of every 48 times they steal, on average
The takeaway? Shoplifting is common, opportunistic, and difficult to stop. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, as the crime can be very costly to retailers.
In fact, loss prevention personnel rank shoplifting as the #1 shrink issue, and Hayes International estimates it costs American retailers up to $20 billion USD annually.
That’s as much as $55 million USD per day, $2.3 million USD per hour, or $38,000 USD per minute.
According to the Hayes Annual Retail Theft Survey, retailers apprehended 158,158 shoplifters in 2020, a 43.8% drop in the number from the year before. As a result, they recovered 36.5% less (roughly $49 million) than they did in 2019 ($77.2 million).
So, how can you protect your business and prevent shoplifters?
You start here.
About the Shoplifter
Very few shoplifters are professional criminals. They tend to be more opportunistic than well-planned.
Just over half (55%) of shoplifters started as teenagers, while it’s believed that roughly 25% of shoplifters are juveniles.
They may be male or female, young or old, and of any ethnicity.
Likewise, the reasons someone shoplifts vary from individual to individual. The STOPLifting program recognizes seven different types, including:
- Addictive Compulsive
In short, you can’t identify one on appearance alone, nor should you try.
If you want to prevent shoplifters, you need to train your employees to watch for certain behaviors, not certain people.
Typical Shoplifter Behavior
While nothing is fool-proof, there are some key behaviors that often—though not always—indicate someone may be thinking about stealing. You must obviously take everything on a case-by-case basis and remember that acting suspiciously does not imply guilt.
That said, if someone catches your eye because of something they are or are not doing, it’s probably a good idea to give them extra attention while you assess the situation. Trust your gut. Behavior includes:
- Spending more time looking at the cashier and other staff members than they do at merchandise
- Frequently entering and leaving the store without making a purchase
- Wearing unseasonal clothing like a big baggy coat in the summer
- Avoiding eye contact
- Returning from the dressing room with far fewer items than they went in with
- Unnatural or unbalanced step, suggesting they are concealing something bulky or heavy under their clothing
- Eyes don’t look at what their hands are doing
And remember, shoplifting doesn’t just include walking out of the store without paying. It extends to the intent to steal, such as changing a price tag, removing a security device, placing an item in their bag or pocket, and removing merchandise from its packaging.
Shoplifters most often rely on concealment. They hide items in bags, pockets, or under their clothing and then simply walk out.
But they may also work with a partner or group in a coordinated effort. While one makes a distraction to get the attention of most of the staff, the others grab their targeted items and leave during the commotion.
Be aware of both techniques.
Strategies to Prevent Shoplifters
Identifying the typical behavior of the average shoplifter is step one of prevention. Informing staff and keeping a keen eye for it is step two. But don’t stop there.
Past Offenders Program
Share details of apprehended shoplifters with other businesses in the area and encourage them to do likewise.
If someone has a history of shoplifting, but no one knows it, that doesn’t help anyone prevent it. A photo of a known shoplifter taken from security footage and shared with others can help everyone thwart further theft.
You might even consider a face recognition service like FaceFirst to give it a high-tech upgrade.
A full 44% of shoplifters said they’d move on to another business if staff paid closer attention to them.
That doesn’t mean pestering or following them around, but a simple acknowledgment—like a smile, nod, or quick “hello”—lets them know you’ve seen them and are aware of their presence. It’s also just good customer service, so win-win.
The average shopper intent on stealing something from you wants to blend in and disappear.
Identify Your Typical Customer
There’s an ideal customer for your products. Who typically buys it?
This won’t apply to every business. Some merchandise is equally attractive and useful to a wide range of people.
But if your buyer persona is more precise, an atypical customer is going to stick out. Maternity wear store and a bunch of teenage boys walk in? They’re out of place and may be looking to do something other than shop.
Be aware of everyone walking in.
The Approach Technique
This one is straightforward: if you or your staff see someone exhibiting shoplifter behavior, approach them and treat them as any other customer.
Ask if they’re finding everything or if they need any assistance. Being spoken to is often enough to deter a would-be shoplifter before they do it.
Video Surveillance and CCTV
Security cameras are one of the most cost-effective loss prevention solutions. Visible cameras around the store and in high-traffic areas are an amazing way to prevent shoplifters and other criminals.
Anything that increases the risk of being seen or caught is going to make a would-be thief think twice before slipping anything into their bag.
Place monitors where customers can see them, so they know the cameras aren’t just there for show. A live feed that staff can monitor is a lot more powerful obstacle than a camera that just records somewhere in a back room.
The more eyes on them—both human and electronic—the less likely they are to do anything criminal.
And if they do it anyway, you’ll have footage to assist in apprehension and recovery.
Optimize Store Layout
Rearrange store displays, shelves, and tables to ensure your staff can easily see most areas with a clear line of sight. Use mirrors to eliminate blind spots and increase visibility. Keep product displays at eye level or lower. Place high-end, expensive items close to the cashiers.
Identify other commonly stolen items, and place them closer to staff and/or behind a locked cabinet door (such as razors in the pharmacy). Some of the top stolen items include:
- Video games
- Designer clothing
- Infant formula
- High-end liquor
- Teeth whitening strips
- Laundry detergent
The most commonly stolen food product in the world? Believe it or not, it’s cheese.
Anti-theft signage that says “All Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted” or something similar is very effective. It lets them know you’re actively working to prevent shoplifters, and that you will punish anyone caught doing it and hand them over to the authorities.
Electronic Article Surveillance
You can attach an electronic article surveillance (EAS) tag to articles of clothing. Insert magnetic strips into the packaging for video games and other electronics. RFID stickers can attach to most items.
These and other devices like them set off an alarm whenever someone tries to leave the store with a product with a tag still on or activated.
Simple, but effective. Prevention doesn’t have to be complicated.
Draft and Share a Shoplifting Policy
Each member of your staff should know exactly what to watch for, what to do if they see it, and how to notify other members of staff and management.
Write it down and make it part of employee onboarding and training.
Ultimately, well-trained, informed, and alert employees are your best solution to protect your business from shoplifters. Video cameras and EAS devices are a great second tier of protection. Signage is a nifty topper to your efforts.
Sadly, we’re never going to eliminate shoplifting and inventory shrinkage completely. The most we can do is take proactive steps to mitigate the risk and minimize our exposure.
Loss for a single case of shoplifting averaged $310.11 in 2020. And that impacts your bottom line, which trickles down and makes it difficult to pay your staff fairly and keep prices competitive.
Do a little. Do a lot. Just be sure you do something to prevent shoplifters.